When commentators were vociferously claiming that Iraq had gone to hell in a handcart following the invasion of ten years ago, I took my wife and son to Iraq for a holiday. I know that most people would think it eccentric to put ‘holiday’ and ‘Iraq’ in the same sentence but they are missing out.
We spent a few days in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It’s too soon for most travellers to visit Baghdad, where I spent two weekend political breaks in 2008 and 2009, but Iraqi Kurdistan rid itself of Saddam in 1991 and has had more time to recover from decades of fascism and isolation than the rest of the country. It is safe and stable. I have often walked about there without any fear whatsoever. There’s no reason why, in time, the rest of Iraq could become more like Kurdistan.
We flew into Erbil airport, once a small airfield but now a spanking new 16 terminal and British-designed modern building that also boasts the fifth longest runway in the world. MPs were once driven down the runway before the airport opened. One bright spark suggested that Jeremy Clarkson should use it in Top Gear. The programme later visited Kurdistan and praised its safety and beauty.
The weather in early March was hot but comfortable. It’s a dry heat that seeps gently through your body rather than sweats you out. Spring is probably the best time. It’s a subjective judgement but I wouldn’t go there in July or August when it’s like a furnace.
We explored the capital Erbil, which has been transformed from what some used to see as a dusty little town to a thrusting and cosmopolitan city. Its three large parks, one of them complete with a cable car, are oases of greenery and solitude except when they are packed at the weekend.
We were lucky enough to stay one night in the five star Rotana which sports several swanky restaurants and famed for its Wednesday Fish Buffet – crab, prawns, mussels, lobster. We popped into the Empire Speed Centre where expats down lagers and burgers, with some using the go karts – before the beer, hopefully.
We also visited the Dawa restaurant in the main Sami Abdul Rahman Park for a lavish banquet of lamb, goat, turkey and chicken with their very special bread. The kebabs are served from a huge ceremonial sword.
When we later hit the road we stopped at small roadside cafes for the statutory and generous portions of kebabs and bread, although I would recommend avoiding toilets in such places.
We failed to visit the famous Citadel, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world which stretches back 8,000 years. I had seen it before and have seen it being lovingly restored with the help of Unesco. I’d also recommend a visit to its Textile Museum where you can buy rugs, mirrors, hats, ornate backgammon sets and bags.
Erbil has much to offer but to get the full flavour of the Kurdistan Region you need to escape from Erbil. Some years back, I was with a party of four MPs. Two had been to Kurdistan before and the other two were new. We were discussing the Kurdistan Regional Government’s policy of reviving agriculture. The new people formed an anti-agrarian faction scoffing at the idea that Kurdistan should sink billions into a drive for self-sufficiency. It was a vanity project.
They quickly changed their minds when we left the city and saw the breathtaking beauty of the countryside and its so far untapped agricultural potential. The Kurdistan Region is about the same size as Scotland but seems so much larger when you are on the road. The sky goes on forever and any expectations of a desert environment are knocked for six by a vast and verdant plain of fields and meadows ringed by mountains with waterfalls and springs. You can lose yourself in its solitude.
We took the road north from Erbil towards the Iranian border. It was the Hamilton Road built to help service the silk road. We saw the Pank tourist resort with its chalets and conference centre. The gorges at Gali Ali Beg were next and are the deepest in the Middle East. They are stunningly beautiful.
We later took the road towards Slemani and stopped at Lake Dukan, which provides much of the freshwater fish lovingly prepared in Kurdish restaurants. We found a way down to the waterside and saw a few boats breezing up and down but, possibly through our lack of knowledge, we didn’t see any great facilities for tourists.
The FT and the Times have recently devoted space to extolling the virtues of tourism in the Kurdistan Region. Kurdistan’s rich offering is largely untouched by tourists, particularly from the West, as the region is only just beginning to build the infrastructure needed to open itself to tourism. Hotels, cable cars, ski resorts, holiday complexes, telecommunications, training in the hospitality industry, branding and marketing are all areas that are ripe for development.
The KRG UK is organising a Tourism Infrastructure Development conference entitled Kurdistan Region: the hidden jewel of the Middle East. It is on Tuesday 2 July 2013 from 9am to 5pm at the BIS Conference Centre, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET
The organisers point out that over two billion US Dollars worth of private investment has already gone into tourism infrastructure development and that the KRG wants to enable some of Kurdistan’s largest companies and senior officials to meet and potentially partner with British producers of goods, services, expertise and consulting companies.
Participants can meet KRG ministers and government officials, leading Kurdish companies and Kurdistan’s chambers of commerce and trade associations.
To secure a place at this conference, send an email with your full name and a brief description of your company to Ms Nawal Karim, Director of Trade and Investment Relations at the KRG UK Representation, firstname.lastname@example.org